Is Monastery Life Christian?
MONASTERY life is held in high esteem by many persons. Not that many want to become monks themselves, but they place the monk on a pedestal and admire him because of his asceticism. Thus twenty-two students, both Protestant and Catholic, of an Ohio university felt that they were “a bit closer to heaven” for having spent a week end at the Trappist monastery at Gethsemane, Kentucky, early in 1951, “brushing against the garment of God,” as one of them expressed it.—Cleveland Press, March 5, 1951.
What is the life of the Trappist monks that caused these young men to feel so edified because of having come in contact with it? What is the origin of monastic life? And does that life find support in the Bible, and particularly in the example given us by Christ Jesus?
The Trappists really are the “Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance,” which order was founded in the eleventh century. Because of its strict rules it is the pride and joy of many Catholics and has been popularized by a best-selling book written by one of its members. In the United States there are six Trappist monasteries, all together housing some 500 monks, the Trappists being but one of more than 400 Roman Catholic orders or congregations of “Religious” scattered throughout the country.
The theme or keynote of the Trappists is “strict observance” or austerity. Regarding the details we quote from Coronet, October 1951. First of all there is the requirement of silence. “Silence is the shroud these men wear, to better concentrate on God.” “The rule of silence is a penance these monks impose upon themselves as mortification for their sins and the sins of the world.” Except for religious services, and necessary communication with their superior or outsiders because of business relations, they do not speak. Among themselves they use only the sign language.
Austerity is also emphasized in the hours for prayer. Days begin at 2 a.m., with four hours of prayer, and, all together, seven hours each day are spent in religious devotions. Christianity to them is “a total obedience to Christ’s command at Gethsemane to ‘watch and pray.’” “To them there is no greater service to humanity than prayer,” they recognizing “fervent prayer as the strongest weapon for their salvation.”
Austerity is also shown in their menu. No meat, fish or eggs except in cases of illness, meals consisting mostly of vegetables, soups, beverages and plain bread. Austerity also shows itself in their sleeping quarters: each has an individual cell, furnished with crude furniture and a “simple” crucifix. The bed consists of boards with a mattress of straw. Each wears the same robe for work, worship, relaxation and sleep, at night removing only his shoes.
Communication with friends and relatives is kept at a minimum, and personal visits are not allowed. Most of the daylight hours are spent in farm work, although there is some time for relaxation and pursuing hobbies such as stamp collecting, amateur astronomy, writing novels, etc.
As to why all this austerity, we are told that Trappist monks “devoutly believe that rigorous austerity brings out the best in human character and that by their austere life and self-sacrifice they bring mankind closer to God,” these things being the “guideposts to salvation.” Each Saturday evening two Trappists wash the feet of the rest, hoping thereby to purify themselves. In addition to the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience required of all Catholic orders, Trappists also vow to remain Trappists the rest of their lives and to perfect themselves.
ORIGIN OF MONASTERIES
Actually monasticism or monastery life is as ancient as pagan religion itself, written records purporting to go back 2,000 years before Christ telling of those who spent their nights in prayer and their days fasting. And “nearly 600 years B.C., the artificial caves of India were occupied by Buddhistical monks, and there is conclusive evidence that they served the Brahmins for a like purpose long before that.”—McClintock & Strong’s Cyclopædia, Vol. VI, page 459.
Monasticism can therefore be classed among the many features of the Roman Catholic religion that Cardinal Newman lists in his work, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, as having their origin in paganism. In fact, he includes a monastic custom, that of the tonsure, a circular haircut peculiar to some monks.
While among the Jews for the last two centuries before their destruction A.D. 70 there existed a monastic sect known as the Essenes, it appears that it was not these, but the pagan Egyptian monks that were the immediate predecessors of the so-called Christian monks, as they were first found in Egypt. Beginning as a form of asceticism, a term used to describe the training of Greek gladiators and prize fighters, those practicing it did not at first separate themselves from their fellow men but mingled with them in their daily occupations while denying themselves wine, meat and agreeable foods, some of them also practicing celibacy.
As time went on these retired to the deserts for contemplation, where they were visited by many as objects of reverence or for advice. They then became known as anchorites, that is, those who retire; as monks, meaning those who live alone, and hermits because they lived in deserts. The anchorites were the most excessive in their austerity, exposing themselves to the rigors of the weather without sufficient clothing, eating very sparingly of coarse foods, wearing heavy chains and iron rings; some even assuming painful positions over a period of years, such as one Simeon Stylites, of the sixth century, who spent both night and day in an erect position atop a pillar, for some thirty years, it is claimed, and who fasted forty days at a stretch. Up until the twelfth century he had many imitators, all of whom were known as “Pillar Saints.”
As anchorites, hermits and monks increased, they formed communities, and then became known as cenobites, from the Greek terms meaning common or communal life. At first each monk was free to do as he pleased, but as time went on these communities evolved set rules, and in the fifth century poverty, chastity and obedience were made the three prime requisites of monastery life. Each monastery, however, continued independent of others until about the eleventh century, when various “orders” began to be formed and monasteries joined one or another of these. The next two centuries saw the formation of the largest and most popular Roman Catholic orders, among which were the mendicants, those monks who went about begging.
History shows that monasticism has swung from one extreme to another; from asceticism to the worst kind of licentiousness; and from poverty to such riches that “the wealth of the monasteries was tempting and the great ones both in Church and State seized upon them.” (Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. X, p. 475) In fact, at one time fully half of Europe was owned by monasteries and other church institutions, and an abbey such as that of Mount Casino had a revenue of more than a million dollars annually. And while swearing vows of obedience its abbots became dukes and sovereign princes, and in Britain sat as peers in Parliament; they coined money like feudal barons and lived in great state and dignity, one of the abbots of St. Gall once entering Strasbourg with a thousand horsemen in his train.
NO BASIS IN THE SCRIPTURES
The entire philosophy of monasticism is foreign to the Scriptures. It finds its basis in gnosticism and pagan religions and is premised on such teachings as that of immortality of the soul, eternal torment and purgatory. Two outstanding fallacies of monasticism are that all that is connected with the flesh is evil and therefore the flesh must be abused as much as possible, and that by means of such abuse, personal works and prayer one can perfect himself and gain salvation for himself and others.
Monasticism is the very antithesis of Christianity. Jesus warned not to advertise one’s prayers and fasting, not to let anyone but God know about these things. (Matt. 6:5-8, 16-18) What is the entire monastic system of retiring to a monastery, wearing black robes, having one’s hair cut a certain way, or cut off altogether, adhering to strict rules regarding silence, and abstinence from certain foods and hours spent in prayer but so much of advertising of piety, which Christ condemned? Not self-inflicted punishment, but deeds of mercy to one’s fellow man are what God commands.—Isa. 58:1-7, AS.
Nowhere, in either the Greek Scriptures or the Hebrew, do we find any basis for asceticism, as though denying ourselves the necessary comforts of life would bring favor with God. Note how plainly the apostle Paul condemns all such: “If you died together with Christ toward the elementary things of the world, why do you, as if living in the world, further subject yourselves to the decrees, ‘Do not handle, nor taste, nor touch,’ respecting things that are all destined to destruction by being used up, in accordance with the commands and teachings of men? Those very things are, indeed, possessed of an appearance of wisdom in a self-imposed form of worship and mock humility, a severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in combating the satisfying of the flesh.”—Col. 2:20-23, NW.
True, Christ Jesus suffered, his apostles and disciples suffered, even as did Jehovah’s faithful servants from Abel to John the Baptist, but do we read that they courted suffering for its own sake? They were willing to suffer rather than compromise, but when they could avoid suffering without compromising they did so. Nowhere are we told that such self-imposed sufferings are the way to salvation. On the contrary, we are told that it is the blood of Christ, together with our faith in it, that cleanses us from all sins.—Rom. 5:1; 1 John 1:7.
Nor is there any justification for retreating from mankind. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, for Christians to heed John’s words, “Keep yourselves from idols,” they had to separate from the world because the world was full of idolatry. But where do we read in the Bible that any of the early Christians did that? Would there have been any persecution if they had followed that course? Of course not, and the fact that they were persecuted proves that they did not physically separate themselves from the world.
The trappists take a vow of silence, but where in the Scriptures are we told to refrain from using our tongues? On the contrary, we are told to comfort him that is weary with a word, to speak the truth to our neighbor. Every Christian is to make disciples of people of all nations. The early Christian congregation, when it was scattered because of persecution, did not keep silent, but went everywhere preaching the Word. Speech is a gift, God intends us to use it, but, of course, not abuse it or misuse it.
Christ Jesus did much praying, once spending a whole night in prayer, just before he chose his twelve apostles. (Luke 6:12-16) And on the night of his betrayal he did much praying and he counseled his apostles to “watch and pray.” (Matt. 26:41) But did he mean thereby that we should spend from four to seven hours daily in prayer? Hardly, when he warned against needless repetition in prayer. (Matt. 6:5-8) He was a busy man, he had much preaching to do. So did Paul and all the other early Christians. They also had to study God’s Word so as to properly equip themselves for preaching.
We are commanded to love God. The best way we can do that is to praise him, not within the walls of a monastery but where others can hear of him so that they also can join in praising God. We are told to love ourselves and our neighbors as ourselves. We do not show love of ourselves by torturing our bodies, denying them necessary food and rest, and we cannot be loving our neighbor as ourselves if we separate ourselves from him. We show the very best kind of neighbor love when we preach to our neighbors about who Jehovah God is, what his purposes are and what his kingdom will accomplish. (Mark 12:28-34) That is the essence of Christianity, but it cannot be done in a monastery. Therefore monastery life is not Christian.